Despite a 35% drop in attendance, several hundred publishing and database companies—including Thomson, Elsevier Science, ExLibris, John Wiley, Infotrieve, OCLC, Lexis Nexis, Highwire Press, Swets Blackwell and Wolters Kluwer—filled the Olympia Grand Hall at the 25th London Online conference in early December. Some reported doing brisk business, and the air was full of new ideas.

Included among the many activities was an announcement that may represent a breakthrough in digital publishing—namely the launch of ExpressExec by British company Capstone Publishing, acquired by John Wiley & Sons in June 2000. ExpressExec offers original material, published "once" for multiplatform delivery, both print and electronic; the material will be sold through traditional and online vendors, and the customer chooses the extent and format of the final product.

By blending the business models of traditional, database and online publishing, ExpressExec offers multichannel delivery of three million original words, commissioned from 80 international business authors. Representing, in book form, a business "library" of 100 separate short volumes, ExpressExec will be available on paper, online or in e-books, as a whole or chapter by chapter, with mix-and-match searchability and flexibility. In addition, rights are at the ready for transactions of many kinds, whether translation, custom publishing or re-purposing.

Capstone director and cofounder Mark Allin noted, "It's a first. Most other online products are created by aggregators... or by publishers re-purposing existing material," rather than publishing original material, as Capstone will do.

As with all early-stage innovations, what makes this possible are very limited specifications. In this case, authors have written to a defined template of 10 chapters per book, with each chapter divided into a half-dozen or so sections. Although in the future such "products" will undoubtedly be more flexible, here the goal is quite specific: state-of-the-art business education, with subjects ranging from innovation and marketing to people and life and work, that allows users to drill down to issues like ROI or investing. And customers can find the materials in physical and/or electronic format from traditional book retailers, electronic outlets and even, in some cases, on their corporate intranets.

The first 30 volumes are being released this month, with the complete rollout set for February 2002. "We'll see how it develops," Allin added, "and we'll be listening very closely to the customers."